Why I Travelled to Europe and What I Found Instead

I would like to say that I went to Europe because I wanted to see the world and experience different cultures, but quite frankly, that would be a lie.

Sure, those two reasons factored into my decision to go, but as embarrassing as it is to admit, I really went because I was bored and frustrated. I just desperately, desperately wanted out. I was about to turn nineteen, and some part of me felt like I had never done anything exciting in my entire life–I had never had a true adventure. I suddenly had this insatiable need for excitement that couldn’t fulfilled at home.

So I lied and gave the usual list of reasons for travel to anyone who asked why, and it worked. Cecelia was up for going–we had been talking about going to Europe together since we were fourteen–and my parents and doctors gave me the go ahead. The two of us purchased tickets, and I was caught up in a whirlwind of preparation as we rushed to pull everything together.

And you know what? I didn’t find that excitement in Europe. Not at all. I was surrounded by amazing museums, monuments, restaurants, shops, buildings, and parks; I was with my best friend doing the things we had dreamed about doing for years; I was of more than legal age everywhere we went; and there were no adults to tell me what to do and when to do it; but I still found myself bound with the same weird feeling of boredom. I could feel myself still screaming, “I WANT OUT! LET ME OUT! I AM HERE IN THE PLACE THAT IS SUPPOSED TO BE LIBERATING AND NOTHING IS HAPPENING!! PLEASE, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, JUST LET ME OUT!”

And it wasn’t until I was sitting on the Tube on our last night in London that I realized that I didn’t know what “out” was and what was holding me back from getting it. I was vigorously straining to free myself from these mysterious shackles in London as much as I was at home. Some part of me felt like I needed to do something bigger, that really proved that I rapidly approaching the end of my second decade, so I dragged Cecelia to a pub one night where I drank a glass of terrible lemonade and Cecelia ate a salad. But even that wasn’t enough, and I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my morals to do anything further like ordering a proper drink. So I left London, happy with my experiences there, but still hopelessly trapped.

Then, one evening in Paris, after being embarrassingly and unjustly nasty to Cecelia following an unfortunate Metro experience, I figured out what it was: I could run away from environments all I liked, but I couldn’t run away from my own head and my self-imposed repression.

I have a list of rules a mile long, and I am insanely strict about following them. I don’t curse, and my eyes will actually skip over those words while I’m reading so that I will not say them in my head. I won’t knowingly eat food that has alcohol in it, even if it has “cooked off.” I don’t wear skirts or dresses without bike shorts on the off chance that my underwear might show. If I can’t see at least one rib without sucking in, I drastically cut back on food. I pinch myself whenever I take the Lord’s name in vain (which I do far too often), and I will just leave or pretend I don’t know them if I think the people I’m with are acting inappropriately. And the list goes on. In short, I can be a horrible, horrible prig.

I also can’t escape how mental illness has affected my life. I can’t change that I spent a majority of my Junior and Senior years of high school missing out on numerous social and academic activities because I was in and out of treatment facilities and heavily medicated. Those feelings of alienation and loneliness are going to take a long time to fade, and I don’t think that I will ever fully be freed from mental illness–I’ll only ever be able to cope better.

And what happened then continues to affect me now. This past year has been spent hanging out in a waiting room before leaving for college. It was all about coming up with productive ways to fill my time or things that numbed the shame of being left behind again. Everyone else was doing wonderful, exciting things, living on their own, being independent, and learning while I was tapping away on my computer, grading book summaries, and reading so much that I would end each day seeing double.

They came back home matured and confident, with stories of their adventures, and all I had to contribute was “so I went to this book event in the city about a book you’ve never heard of by an author whom you have probably only ever heard me mention, but believe me, it was really good.”

My life was dull and greyed compared to theirs, and I felt so abandoned and embarrassed to be unable to relate. And more than all of that, I was perpetually aware that if I didn’t find some way to prove myself in this waiting room, I was only going to be stuck in there longer. I spent a lot of time lying about how wonderful it was to take a gap year, and each fake smile and untruth made me feel even more ashamed.

Europe, no matter how wonderful, isn’t going to get me away from being unreasonably self-repressed or ashamed. That can’t be purchased on High Street in London or found below The Eiffel Tower. Even the middle of Lac Léman isn’t going to have the answer. The solution comes from within and being able to forgive and liberate myself, and gaining the ability to do that is going to be a lifelong process.

On the plane ride home, during hour three of eight, I started to think about whether the trip had been a failure in that regard, whether I was returning with the same amount of self-hatred I had before I left, and whether I should have waited to go. Was it a mistake to have gone seeking something I could have found at home?

But after a little more reflection and accidentally dumping a cup of soda in my lap, I realized that the trip had been a success in so many other regards.

Maybe I was still quite ashamed of myself, but I had climbed to the top of Le Arc de Triomphe, even though I am monstrously afraid of heights;

Ah, the weird facial expressions of someone who feels both victorious and like they are going to faint.

I ate three meals a day for nearly two weeks, something I haven’t done since I was thirteen;

I didn’t regurgitate any of the food I put in my mouth;

I only took two real breaks due to anxiety;

Feeling faint and checking my pulse halfway up Le Arc de Triomphe. It was absurdly high, and I nearly cried, but I did not hyperventilate and got to the top.

I only cried from unhappiness once;

While I don’t actually have a picture of me in tears–Cecelia is far to nice to ever take a picture of me doing that–I do have a picture from while I was crying. You’ll just have to imagine me into it–mental photoshop, if you will.

and –though I’ll let Cecelia be the real judge of this–I don’t think that I was quite as priggish as I normally am in stressful situations.

My self-imposed rules didn’t vanish like I hoped, but I learned that I can be braver and take bigger emotional risks than I truly though possible. I got to spend loads and loads of time with my best friend, and I had a monstrous amount of fun exploring London and Paris, my two favorite cities, visiting the Geneva area for the first time, and meeting Cecelia’s French family. I spoke French and managed not to make any embarrassing mistakes. I got to go shopping at my favorite at my favorite British and French stores, and I saw some amazing museum exhibits. And even though this wasn’t the first time I’ve travelled by myself, or even travelled to Europe alone, I feel like I truly proved that I can be an independent adult.

In the end, I got the things I had lied about seeking, seeing the world and experiencing different cultures, and didn’t get the thing, that “out,” I was actually searching for.

And you know what?

I am totally okay with that.

In fact, I am glad that it turned out this way.

Elementary School Potato Chips

As erroneous as it may be, in my head hearing, “Ella, you need to gain weight” is synonymous “Ella, please start eating lots of organic junk food.” So in yet another attempt to gain back the weight I lost in Europe, I sat down with a bag of Route 11 Barbecue Potato Chips this afternoon.

As a child in D.C. Route 11 Potato Chips were my favorite. But the company is fairly regional, and it’s rare to see them very far outside of the Shenandoah Valley area. In fact, I don’t think I’ve had them for upwards of five years. But when I went to West Virginia a few weeks ago, I snagged several bags at a deli to eat when I returned home.

Route 11 Potato Chips were once a elementary lunchtime staple, broken into small shards in a plastic bag that inevitably ended up smushed at the bottom of my brown bag lunch. I preferred them to cookies or sweets, and everyday in the cafeteria I would very carefully save them for last. I once even managed to get my parents to take me to the factory where we could buy their “exclusive” flavors like fried chicken and watch the workers toss the potato slices into the fryers. Needless to say, this afternoon I was very excited to eat the chips.

So at around two when I was ready for a treat to distract me from the endless headache of trying to submit college forms, I grabbed a bag and sat back down in front of the computer to snack on them as I worked.

In retrospect, I suppose that I should have known that I would end up crying. And sadly, it wasn’t that nostalgic now-those-were-the-days crying.

The moment I put the first chip in my mouth, I felt like I was eight-years-old again and absolutely miserable. Those chips tasted like the bullying and isolation of my elementary school years. They tasted like loneliness and desperation, like purposely slicing my thumb on a can so that I could go to the nurses office rather than spend twenty minutes sitting at a sticky table and staring at my Route 11 potato chips and a dry PB&J sandwich on whole grain bread while I got kicked in the shins and mocked. They tasted like hiding in the stairwell to avoid going back to class, like being disliked by nearly every one of my teachers, like sitting for hours in the nurse’s office because I got kicked out of the classroom for the second time that day.

Each bite tasted of the misery I have worked so hard to bury underneath my happy memories of playing with my neighbors. Lee, Zach, Joseph, Pippa, and Beth took that pain away every afternoon and weekend, and I try to focus on the hijinks I got up to with them instead of school. It works most of the time, too. If I box it away tightly enough, it’s almost as if it never happened. I’m determined that my childhood is going to be thought of as happy.

But the chips uncovered the pain–made it a reality again–and all I wanted to do was throw up. I wanted to have to kneel in front of the toilet, holding my hair back, and retch until the chips were all gone, and I could forget about the pain again. Just make it go away.

However, I made a promise to myself recently to be more brave, to do the things that are painful and scare me without flinching or backing down, so I finished that bag of chips. I ate every last bite of that sorrow, and I forced myself not to cry.

I rolled up the empty bag to throw out when I finished my forms, stuffed it out of sight behind the monitor, and got back to work. It was time to move on. I’m not in elementary school anymore, and I’m not going to let myself wallow in the past, no matter how acute those sensory memories can be. I’ve got strong mental duct tape to seal back up that unhappy memories box, and a new vow to never eat Route 11 Barbecue Potato Chips again. It’s going to be okay, I thought, Everything is going to be okay.